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Note on the Collect for Candlemas

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Candlemas (a.k.a. the Presentation or the Purification or the Meeting) was February 2, though some churches moved it to yesterday for greater solemnity. In preparing for my sermon — you can find the final product here — I noticed an interesting change in the 1979 prayer book’s version of the collect:

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly beseech thee that, as thy only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Nothing terribly out of place here, and still a very beautiful prayer. But here’s the 1928 version:

Almighty and everlasting God, we humbly beseech thy Majesty, that, as thy only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in substance of our flesh, so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Notice the difference? Well, there are a few. The first two don’t strike me as terribly significant: 1979 lengthens the closing and cuts out “Majesty” (good Americans that we are). The third change, though, is a little more substantial. Apparently the 1979 revisers didn’t like the word “substance,” or thought, as Marion Hatchett writes in the Commentary on the American Prayer Book, that “this metaphysical terminology tends now to be confusing rather than helpful” (p. 199).

The original prayer from the Roman Rite, translated by Cranmer, definitely includes “substance”:

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, Majestatem tuam supplices exoramus: ut, sicut unigenitus Filius tuus hodierna die cum nostrae carnis substantia in templo est praesentatus; ita nos facias purificatis tibi mentibus praesentari. Per eumdem Dominum.

Clearly Cranmer wasn’t too worried about confusion, despite what we might call a suspicion of scholastic metaphysics on the part of most Reformers. (He also, by the way, changed “through” to “by” at the end, which adds a very nice nuance to the prayer, I think.)

Metaphysics can indeed be confusing in this anti-metaphysical age, but it’s hard to see how it is “helpful” to avoid it altogether. It’s impossible to talk about the divine-human natures of Christ without some recourse to metaphysical vocabulary. To speak of “substance” doesn’t mean that we have any idea what we’re talking about when we say “substance,” but it gives us a way of speaking that prevents us from saying too much. I wonder if our frequent caution over being confusing is actually more confusing in some ways, because it presumes too easily that the Christian mystery is straightforward when it is not, easy to grasp when it is in fact deeply disorienting. It seems to me that we ought to use words like “substance” precisely so that we can have more conversations about what we mean by them, and so that the liturgy, as well as the Christian life, can be seen as a the real challenge it is. Otherwise we reduce this wild and terrible thing called Christianity to the sum total of our most banal dinner conversations.

One Response to “Note on the Collect for Candlemas”

  1. Canon Neal Michell says:

    “Otherwise we reduce this wild and terrible thing called Christianity to the sum total of our most banal dinner conversations.” And our prayers as going no higher than the ceiling of the room we are in.

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